Online Universities Are a Great Study
Virtual and other types of alternative learning eventually will supplant many bricks-and-mortar universities that charge five and six figures for bachelor’s degrees. Pro or con?
Pro: Limited Funds Call for Innovative Learning
In an ideal world, with unlimited funds, all students would have access to the best educational systems we could design. But our world is not perfect. And our traditional model for undergraduate education costs too much and delivers too little. Over the past 25 years, higher education costs, at our more modest institutions as well as at elite schools, have been skyrocketing. And many question whether the majority of today’s graduates are well prepared for the world of the future.
The challenge is to create new educational models that provide a high-quality education affordable for as many students as possible. Hybrid or blended learning, combining sophisticated online learning with face-to-face student/faculty interaction, is one promising method. Built on the latest research on how people learn, such "high-tech, high-touch" programs work. A 2009 Education Dept. meta-analysis showed that students learned more in hybrid programs than they did either in those delivered online or in the traditional classroom. And hybrid instruction can be delivered at considerably less cost.
Some colleges and universities and some families have the resources to ignore cost in pursuit of their educational ideal. And in some fields, and for some students, high-tech/high-touch may not be the most effective instructional design. But it is a model that may help many brick-and-mortar institutions increase both their quality and affordability. If they don’t integrate online or other alternative forms of learning into their programs, more than a few are likely to fail. Market forces will determine what higher education will look like in the future. The smart money isn’t betting that traditional bricks-and-mortar model will continue to dominate the landscape. More than a few brick-and-mortar institutions are likely to fail if online options consistently deliver more learning at a lower cost.
Con: Physical Universities Face No Threat
The outlandish notion that the Internet will put many colleges out of business would have been a little too simplistic even 10 years ago, when the most ridiculous predictions about the Internet passed for deep thoughts.
First, the residential collegiate experience far transcends formal classroom learning—through elements like socialization, transition to independent living, and emotional development for younger students—and is the very thing that can’t be replicated online. Williams, Amherst, Harvard, Princeton, and their lesser peers can rest easy: No one will opt to park their children in front of a laptop in the basement instead of sending them off to a real college, regardless of nominal costs (a significant portion of which are covered by student aid anyway).
Second, the proliferation of shoddy for-profit online "universities" does not threaten traditional institutions. The for-profit diploma mills typically target unsophisticated low-income populations who would need significant remedial work before becoming academically qualified for real college-level work. The explosive growth in their enrollment costs the taxpayers plenty in the form of wasted federal student aid, but does not affect traditional institutions in any way.
Finally, distance education, far from undermining institutions of higher education, has been widely and astutely adopted by them as an additional means of instructional delivery. Almost all traditional institutions have embraced online learning in one form or another and often use it to supplement face-to-face classroom learning. In addition, a subset of traditional colleges now offers high-quality online programs and has emerged as a dominant provider in distance education.
For the vast majority of colleges, the advent of online learning has been a net advantage in the form of better instructional delivery even for their in-person courses, additional means of supplementing the classroom experience, and broader reach to students off site.